Hundreds Of Growing Business Leaders Gather For NJ Cannabis Insider Conference

After years of politically-driven delays and prolonged court battles, more than 500 cannabis entrepreneurs virtually gathered earlier this week to imagine what a multi-billion-dollar industry could mean for patients and the New Jersey economy.

Retired NBA star and cannabis mogul Al Harrington, who is a New Jersey native, spoke about his goal to foster 100 Black millionaires through the cannabis industry.

“There is more than enough money for everyone to sit at the table and eat,” Harrington said.

For the moment, Harrington is reveling in the knowledge that the plant’s stigma finally is fading.

“Now we are starting to humanize the plant,” said Harrington, who named his company, Viola Brands, after his grandmother, for whom cannabis eased her glaucoma and diabetic pain.

“That is a beautiful thing. It’s done so much good,” he said.

Harrington was among the handful of speakers NJ Cannabis Insider assembled Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss how New Jersey will move to the next stage of cannabis legitimacy, now that Gov. Phil Murphy signed the legalization law and appointed the final members to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission.

Commission Chair Dianna Houenou estimated that adult-use sales for those who are 21 and over are still about a year away while the commission develops and vets the regulations necessary to govern the industry.

She promised the commission would be guided by equity, integrity and a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The law requires that the commission must ensure minorities, women and veterans have opportunities in the market, Houenou said. Part of that responsibility involves educating market newcomers in how to spot predatory lenders and other business partners who might exploit them in order to get a leg up in the application process, she said.

“This is a tough issue that we as a collective … have to wrestle with,” she said. “A lot of communities have been excluded from lending opportunities.”

Houenou said access to capital and financial education would be a critical component and that disadvantaged communities should not be tokenized.

“I don’t expect New Jersey to have a perfect, pristine cannabis industry from day one. It’s going to take some time and adjustments,” Houenou said.

While the regulatory process plays out, more than one speaker said there would be plenty of business opportunities in the medicinal marijuana market.

The current roster of medicinal cannabis growers and retailers does not meet the demand of the patient population, which exceeded 100,000 at the end of 2020 and grows by about 3,000 to 5,000 people a month.

Residents can expect the commission to enact rules that will put registered patients at the front of the line and ahead of recreational users, said Jeff Brown, assistant health commissioner and the future commission’s executive director.

“I’ll be perfectly honest, we have some dispensaries right now that are so busy, you could not add one personal-use cannabis customer without displacing a patient, and we’re not going to let that happen,” Brown said.

Brown also alluded to a wide universe of job and industry opportunities in delivery, laboratory testing and information technology.

“There are tremendous opportunities in medical still — we are just scratching the surface,” Brown said.

Lab services are a priority because consumers will expect the label to list the strain, THC potency and terpene profile, he said.

Brown said if he could send a message to the lab industry, it would be that “New Jersey is going to be open for business very, very soon. We are looking to get this thing going as soon as we can.”

Attorney Bill Caruso at Archer Public Affairs predicted the state Health Department is “a couple weeks away” from issuing new licenses for medicinal marijuana growers and retailers that until recently had been held up by litigation.

Medicinal marijuana will also get a boost in the not-too-distant future from employers and insurance companies who will be willing to cover the cost of cannabis, Caruso said.

“Businesses are starting to realize ... cannabis has much better results for pain medicine,” he said.

New Jersey’s existing medical market is dominated by multistate operators, or MSOs.

Caruso, whose clientele includes Columbia Care in Vineland, said they serve a purpose by bringing experience and capital to provide a foundation from which the industry can grow.

Caruso compared smaller operations to the popularity of the craft beer industry in New Jersey, which complements the market of big sellers.

“There is a place for everyone,” Caruso said.

State Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, said his legislation as of late has been focused on creating wider access — either for patients who can’t afford their cannabis medicine or the entry-level business person struggling to find capital and reliable partners.

Lawmakers ought to be advocates, Singleton said, “to make sure that we have a robust cannabis industry and that those who choose to partake will be able to partake in an environment that is healthy for them and healthy for our state.”

Singleton added that legislation and regulation were necessary but had to strike a delicate balance.

“I think we all have to be mindful of the overreach of government in this space. And in some places, that overreach has stymied the growth of the industry,” he said. “That is something, frankly, that advocates are going to have to make sure that they keep a check on policy makers like myself, to make sure that we are not overreaching from a government standpoint and diminishing the opportunity for this industry to flourish.”

The two-day conference, which took place March 9-10, was underwritten in part by a collection of sponsors with established ties to the New Jersey cannabis space. They were: Curaleaf, Hance Construction, Longview Strategic, Cole Schotz, New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program, Genova Burns, NJ Cannabis Certified, Trichome Analytical, Archer Law, Supreme Security Alarms, Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper, Grassi Advisors & Accountants, Eaze, Vicente Sederberg and Harvest 360, NJ Cannabis Insider’s social equity partner. Other strategic partners were: New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, The WeedHead & Company and Stockton University.

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